Lessons learned from Sir Thomas Lipton, one of the world's first celebrity CEOs
A Full Cup: Sir Thomas Lipton's Extraordinary Life
and His Quest for the America's Cup
By Michael D'Antonio
Riverhead Books; 368 pp, $26.95
The America's Cup exerts a gravitational tug on rich, eccentric overachievers. Ted Turner, Larry Ellison, and Bill Koch are just some of the gazillionaires to compete for the most prestigious trophy in racing. Long before any of them, there was Sir Thomas Lipton—the Great Lipton, as he called himself.
A millionaire grocer and tea baron—yes, that Lipton—the Glaswegian was probably the first businessman who set out to become a celebrity. Other tycoons attained renown before him, but to J.P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt, celebrity was an annoying byproduct of their business success. For Lipton, fame was a vital part of corporate strategy. Known for publicity stunts such as driving pigs through the street to one of his grocery stores under a banner proclaiming them "Lipton's orphans," or offering slices of what he alleged was the world's biggest cheese, he cut the template for future celebrity CEOs. Michael D'Antonio, author of a new biography, points out that Lipton used fame to sell his tea and groceries. But there's scant evidence, in this book or elsewhere, that a celebrity CEO confers any lasting advantage on a company. Particularly when, as was Lipton's case, the CEO becomes famous for something completely unrelated.
One way to read D'Antonio's book is as a cautionary tale about what happens when a CEO becomes more concerned about fame than the bottom line. Lipton spent the first 30 years of his career building an enormously successful chain of food stores throughout Britain. He then spent much of the next 30 in pursuit of the America's Cup. While he lavished spectacular amounts on his chase, his business eroded.
Lipton doesn't appear to have pondered this problem much. His real passion was himself—or at least the version of himself he presented for public consumption. By the early part of the 20th century the press knew him as a Buckingham Palace intimate, a yachtsman, and a man about town with an eye for the ladies. According to D'Antonio, though, he surreptitiously funded the cause of Irish independence, couldn't have reefed a tops'l to save his life, and was likely gay. (D'Antonio suggests Lipton found love with his housemate, William Love, and other men later in life.)
If Public Lipton was different from Private Lipton, there was good reason. During his lifetime, homosexuality was a criminal offense and business was a social one. Much of the British upper crust sniffed at people who made their fortune rather than inherited it. Lipton led a life of regal splendor, swanning between his London estate and his massive plantation in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), yet for decades the Royal Yacht Squadron refused to admit him on the grounds that he was a mere grocer.
Nevertheless, this mere grocer pioneered much of what we now call brand marketing, but can more accurately be described as self-promotion. Decades before Richard Branson or Donald Trump, Lipton knew the importance of creating an easily recognized image—in his case, a bushy mustache, floppy bow tie, and yachting cap—that would appeal to the masses. Nowhere were those personal trademarks more visible than at the America's Cup, which Lipton milked for maximum exposure. He was one of the first to spot the vast marketing potential of sports, especially when coupled with emerging forms of mass communication. He never won the Cup, but it didn't much matter. Paving the way for future industrialists-turned-team-owners, he mastered the art of offering newspaper reporters colorful quotes that elevated their copy and helped sell papers.
At the core of the Lipton brand was his own relentlessly cheery attitude. His personal story showed what was possible. Born in 1848, the son of Irish immigrants in the Glasgow slums, he left school and bought a steerage-class ticket to the U.S. At 18 he disembarked in New York and spent the next two years living hand-to-mouth. His break was landing a job at A.T. Stewart's huge dry goods store in Manhattan. Stewart's goods were similar to those Lipton had known in Scotland, but his emporium paid attention to presentation and offered various sizes and styles—all novelties of the day—which Lipton dutifully noted.
Lipton fell in love with the retail business and the way advertisements in the penny newspapers moved products. He returned to Glasgow at 22 with a fervent belief in advertising and presentation. Over the next two decades he turned his parents' butter and ham shop into a chain of 300 stores spanning Britain.
Despite D'Antonio's gifts as a writer and researcher, Lipton remains a veiled personality. He had a thousand friends but zero intimates. No grand love affairs or feuds ever cracked open his sunny public persona. His associate William Blackwood called him "the most self-centered and self-sufficient individual I have ever met in my life."
As he grew older, Lipton's carefully engineered personal brand showed its limitations. He couldn't bear to break through his genial façade to deliver bad news, so his staff began to dread his habit of visiting Lipton branches, spreading his trademark cheer, and then leaving—only to fire people by telegram days later. In 1914, Lipton Ltd. endured a bribery scandal in which some of its employees were found to have given kickbacks to military officers in exchange for business. Major shortfalls were concealed by Lipton's personal fortune. In 1927 he was ousted from the company he built. The grocery business disappeared in the mid-1980s, while the tea business was acquired by Unilever, under which it has thrived.
Lipton's story starts out as a period piece but turns out to be completely contemporary. Unfortunately, The Great Lipton lived in an age before The Apprentice, when there were few options for a flamboyant CEO outside the C-suite. Without him, though, there might never have been such a show.